It’s interesting that no-one can ever know all the facts of ones life except for the person who lived that life, which is why biography is such hard work and why filmmakers like Gus van Sant can make films like Last Days with the caveat “a fictional story based loosely on the life of Kurt Cobain.”
The trouble is, even if you asked the persons themselves to write their autobiography, you would not get an accurate story, because they would edit and cut and paste and paint for you a pretty picture because they would show you what they wanted you to see, so the person writing the autobiography is not a reliable narrator. In this case, Kurt Cobain would not have been a reliable narrator. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he’d be among the worst narrators and would edit all over the place, portraying himself only as he wanted.
But van Sant proceeded and did a fair job, using the character Blake as a stand in for Cobain and he did a good job of capturing the last few days of what we can only speculate Cobain’s life were like. We know Courtney wasn’t there. I forget where she was, but I do know she wasn’t about. I remember her speaking to us, Cobain’s fans who had gathered and as I recall, she had a mike or something and telling us that he was an ‘asshole’ or something of the sorts, but that’s it, and memory… well… I believe this is how it went down but you tell me. But the film…
The film opens with a disoriented “Blake” as the main character (who we take as to be Kurt, fictionalized) is called, rambling through the back-woods near a stream at what looks to be a not so warm time of year, stripping himself naked of all with the exception of his boots, and diving naked into a stream of cold water near a heavy water fall. It looks ice-cold. It looks like it could be a wake-up call or maybe he wants one. Blake is trying to wake himself up, but it doesn’t help much. He’s trying to connect it seems, but failing at every turn and it’s hard to watch.
Cut to the next scene and Blake is dressed, sitting in the woods in front of a fire, dressed, his socks hanging on twigs to dry and his Converse All Stars on their sides to dry out as well. After this, Blake cuts a path through the woods to his house (why he was in the woods at all is a mystery, but maybe he just wanted to get away, or maybe he was just high as hell, or depressed as hell, and people will do strange things when pushed hard enough. This I know.)
It’s Blake’s house, his stone mansion and the contrast between the exterior of that, and Cobain’s (rather Blake’s) working shed (set outside the mansion) that is most interesting of all. This serves as the backdrop for the entire film, with constant pans back to the peaked and simple one-room shed off to the side that seems airy and light, but we know all-too-well what is going to happen there. Anyone familiar with the Cobain story knows what happens in that shed, so it’s hard to keep seeing it in the shot and not think of where this train is headed.
The exterior of the estate, of course, is beautiful and perfect. It is so put-together and all you would expect of a famous rock-star, but inside, the walls are peeling with paint (as if he had bought it as a “fixer-upper” that he just never fixed, which is entirely possible). There are lots of conversations between others who seem to occupy the house – some must be band members and their friends or girlfriends or hangers on – it’s hard to say. What I do know is that Courtney Love or a Courtney stand in is not there and in real life, was not there.
But back to the house, because I find the dilapidated interior a good metaphor for what is going on with Blake/Kurt – the peeling paint, the fingerprints on the walls, the sullied walls, and in the stair case, the hollowed our corners there from years gone by (that I’ve been told, on pretty good authority, were not merely decorative cut-outs for statues etc, but served the initial purpose for coroners to move pine boxes up and down winding staircases without getting stuck, and of course the same for furniture. If you think about it, it makes sense. These things would not corner well, so cut outs in wall would make sense).
In Blake’s house, they may as well be part of a funeral home for they hold vases shaped like those for ashes and long-stemmed dead and wilted flowers that nobody has bothered to clean out. In fact, nobody seems to have bothered to clean the house at all, perhaps since even moving in. Blake’s kitchen is a pit with white cabinets covered in grey fingerprints. The only food he seems to live on seems to be a box of Cocoa Puffs that is prominently featured on the kitchen counter. The sink itself is filled with a sink of dishes, but from who or what or when I don’t know since nobody ever seems to eat and Blake himself is rail then (making even Kate Moss look overweight, or me for that matter, which is a joke).
More, Blake’s so-called friends seem to enjoy staying up late, listening to the Velvet Underground’s Banana Album with Lou Reed blaring out Venus in Furs “… Now bleeeeeeedd for meeeeee….” a line which is repeated over and over again. Does or did Kurt bleed for us? Is that the implication we are to draw from this, because it’s not just coincidental that this song and particularly this line, is repeated and that our attention is squarely focused and drawn to it. It is there for a reason and I’m trying to sort out why and the only why I can sort out is that van Sant is saying that Yes, Cobain “Bled for us…
Maybe he did. I don’t know. I never felt he bled for me. I certainly didn’t want him to. I never saw him as any martyr. I didn’t want him to martyr himself, and he certainly isn’t my personal Jesus Christ because I don’t have a personal Christ … I just don’t and that’s okay. I don’t believe anyone can truly save you except yourself. I do believe that others can help a bit along the way, but ultimately, kids, the onus lies with you and that’s the tough part. You have to be your own savior, much as that sucks, hard as it may be, you have to do operation bootstrap and at times, that can be fucking hard and don’t I know it. I’ve not only been there myself, I’ve seen people go through it… people I love, and some have survived and others not.
Elliott Smith didn’t come out the other side, did he? I remember the Summer he died and where I was on that day, but what a strange habit we have of remembering the worst days in history. Why is that we do not remember the best and where we were then?
I have also lost one brother as a suicide as well. So that’s two right there who just pulled themselves out of the game, opted out when the going got tough. What I would say to both, and I do know this about my brother, he expected someone else to do the saving for him – which is just not fair.
Look, cruel as this may sound, but I know whereof I speak, if you’re going to commit suicide, you don’t go about announcing it first and ringing up your friends all teary-eyed and in a deep depression. You just do it. You don’t sit in your misery with your Rolodex at your bedside talking the ear off of any one of your friends who is still willing to put up with this guilt trip because believe me, this is a form of guilting someone. In the film, Blake isn’t talking about killing himself; maybe he’s too doped up. I don’t know. He’s wearing a woman’s black slip and army boots, so who knows where his head is at. Obviously not anywhere approaching reason.
But Blake does show some strange reason when he does take a deliberate action – when he does kill himself, for in this, and only in this, he is orderly and neat. He found a quiet and safe place. He choose carefully. He told no-one, in fact, to the contrary. Suddenly, the knowledge of the fact that he’d be dead in a day or two or in a few short hours might have been incredibly liberating this fact alone can afford one the opportunity to be happy again. The world is suddenly light again because the end is insight. Ironic, isn’t it.
Blake never breathes a word to anyone, not about his suicide, not about anything really – not to anybody. The only person he does talk to is, in fact, himself – perhaps the only person who understands. It’s comical when the sales executive from the Yellow Pages arrives at the stone mansion about renewing the “automotive shop” advertisement that Blake must have placed a year prior (did he? and if so, clearly his circumstances have changed). Blake does listen, but says nothing. It’s not that he’s impolite; quite the opposite – the sales man is comfortably seated in a great room on a grand sofa, but Blake is almost curled up into a fetal position, unable to deal with the world.
Sure, part of this or maybe even most of this maybe drugs (though we never see Blake use drugs that I can recall) but also the fact of his manic depression which from what I understand, Cobain (who this story is loosely based on) at the time of his death, was not taking Lithium or any other drug for so was left untreated. A manic downswing combined with heroin would cause a major downswing; the best of us would wind up in the fetal position.
Other visitors to the house include two boys from the Church of Latter Day Saints in their neatly starched short-sleeved shirts an plastic name tags and fresh-scrubbed faces. These two are also invited in but by others living in the house who carry on a long conversation with them and seem reluctant to let them go, and what contrast these two apple-cheeked boys all Ivory-snow are in contrast to the filthy interior of not only the house, but of the minds, which indeed, seem more and more sordid, of some of the other band-members.
No, not Blake. Blake does not seem sordid. Blake remains an innocent – just lost, like a child, likely in a manic state, depressed clearly (hypomanic, not hypermanic) and more, likely or certainly shooting up which explains his most-of-the-time almost catatonic state. What is interesting about the scene is the contrast between the innocence and almost sparkly cleanness of boys and the dim and dingy house, the contrast of which I am sure is no accident. More, that the band unlike most others who turn most or many door-to-door people away seem oddly reluctant to let the two church boys go, which seems to sorta freak-out the Church of Latter Day Saints boys, and if they are freaked out… well… enough said.
It’s interesting that throughout the film there is, if you listen, the sound of church-bells ringing – a full peale – ever so quietly in the beginning as Blake sits outside of his house, but each time, a bit louder such that by the end, before he enters into his shed for the very last time, you hear the church bells full-on. This is when you hear the bell and for Whom It Tolls. It’s done well, and it’s subtle and you have to really be paying attention, but it’s there and I don’t know that I’m wrong. Bells have always served as “a calling” – usually a calling to worship, but to Blake, obviously, a different kind of calling and a way out of what is not a good situation for him. Obviously here there is deep sorrow and perhaps for the first time I the film we really see a close-up of Blake’s blue, pool-like eyes, which in fact, do seem filled with sorrow.
We know how this is going to end. We know because we, or most of us, were there when Cobain died. We remember it all too well. The shed is shot from different angles, the door opened, then Blake’s (Cobain’s) body limply on the floor next to a gun. Soon, the body is taken away, police milling about here and there, others, all of the expected people, and it all seems so very sterile – no pomp or circumstance. We are all so very ordinary in our death. We all go out the same way, no matter how dramatic we try to make it, our final exit is dead boring.
It’s hard to say Blake/Cobain took the ‘easy’ way out because we know from what he wrote in his journals how much he suffered, so do we blame him for wanting out? Maybe I’d opt out too. I can’t say. As they say, Walk a mile in my shoes. I’ve used that line too and I mean it. As Paul Westerberg says, “You be me for a while and I’ll be you…” Yup.